For a very large portion of the season, one of the best and most surprising stories was Matthew Benning. The first year pro player that Peter Chiarelli lured away from the Bruins (fair trade off for the second round pick we lost if you ask me) has exceeded all of my expectations. However, questions remain whether he should start Game 1 or not.
I first assumed Benning would spend time in the AHL and eventually get called up no earlier than Christmas. However, Benning only played two games with the Condors all year (picking up a goal and an assist). He effectively established himself as an NHL talent right out of the gate and as a right-shooting defenseman that was part of the solution for Edmonton’s problem on the blueline.
In 62 games this year he’s picked up a reasonably solid 3-12-15 as a rookie patrolling the blue. That’s solid work, but the impressive part to a lot of the numbers crowd was where he ranked in the fancy stats categories. By eye he was doing pretty well, by number he was also rocking. Keeping in mind that his role for the vast majority of the season was to play the third pairing, I want to recognize that these numbers reflect merely that he was crushing his assignment.
Of the seven regular Oiler defenders this is where Benning finished the season (all numbers 5v5):
Points per 60: 0.71 P/60 – 5th (Larsson 4th with 0.73 P/60)
Corsi Percentage: 52.1% – 1st (Gryba 2nd with 51.8%)
Fenwick Percentage: 52.3% – 1st (Klefbom 2nd with 51.8%)
Shot Percentage: 51.8% – 2nd (Klefbom 1st with 52.0%)
Scoring Chance Percentage: 53.3% – 1st (Nurse 2nd with 50.7%)
Goal Percentage: 56.8% – 2nd (Larsson 1st with 56.8%)
All told, this has been an unreal season for Benning, but his effectiveness has taken a hit as of late. Well, that is to say that after he took a hit his effectiveness has fallen. He was felled by a concussion and missed a little bit of time because of it. When he came back his play dipped. And I mean it really hit the skids.
The pairing of Nurse and Benning which had performed so well by shot metrics (amongst others) has hit the skids. Before the trade deadline and the injury to Benning they were cruising at a 54.2% Corsi For and apart from each other both players were above the 50% marker. Since the deadline and the injury that duo has dropped to 45.7% CF. Now the team as a whole has been winning games but dropping in the shot attempt share so that effect has been felt through every pairing, but that is a steep drop off.
At the same time, Nurse and Gryba – in limited time together – have played to the tune of a 51.7% shot attempt share. So the Oilers have to make a decision about whether or not AT THIS MOMENT IN TIME they are better off playing Nurse with Gryba or Nurse with Benning. For the majority of the year, I’d say it would have been an easy decision. I cannot say that for right now.
The good news for the Oilers is that Benning and Gryba are very different player types. Their strengths are very different. Benning is clearly the better puck distributor of the two players. He also skates better. However, Gryba is without question the more physical of the two and has been reliable by many of the same shot metrics that made Benning stand out. Gryba can rightly claim that his own season on the third pairing has been pretty successful.
If the Sharks are coming into this series wounded and playing a slower game because of it, then Gryba’s weaknesses may not be exposed nearly as easily as they would if San Jose were a speedy team that forced defenders to make quick decisions. If Edmonton needs someone to break up a cycle the Gryba can be that man. It’s entirely conceivable that against these Sharks, the Oilers would be better off playing the low-event, physically durable, Gryba on the third pairing.
We’re going to find out soon enough.